Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Visits and yallery-brown things

Still about, this hillside haunting. Had a visit from my lovely sister, which was most enjoyable. She's not been here as late in the year as this, but resolutely refused to admit being cold despite that this can be a difficult time where temperatures are concerned, a chill in the air but not enough to light the fire yet; we have to have it in for easily five months of the year and are reluctant to start too soon, as then we don't feel the benefit, as one's mothers used to say.

We got about, visited Lamballe market in its autumn plenty, caught the annual Mathurin Meheut exhibition there before it closed for the winter, puppy-sat and walked Dutch E's lovely but rather timorous new young dog Bram, and visited the mohair goats of Corlay, which surprisingly I hadn't done before, and where we indulged in sumptuous fibre and scratched the little kid goats' woolly foreheads. We ate rather well, pulled pork and fish pie and rotisserie chicken and Tom's finest sour potato and chicken massala curries, with Turkish flatbread from an interesting and hearteningly popular new stall on the market run by a chap called Aslan.

Then my Mayenne brother and sister-in-law came and took her away, on the way back from an overnight jaunt on the Paimpol peninsular, which it was good to see them enjoying, and we were able to catch up a bit with them, eat some more, and discuss the sticky issue of septic tanks.*

So I have drifted away from here again rather, and taken few photos. A degree of seasonal lassitude and general reluctance about all kinds of things has set in, pleasures become chores, chores become onerous. The inspiration and good cheer of our Low Lands trip is fading rather; I know that I gazed and gazed at Memling's St Barbara and her velvety drapes, and had a quiet kind of antique torso of Apollo moment of conviction, and brought it back home with me intact, but both spirit and flesh are weakening somewhat now. Thinking about seasonal affectedness, I find it hard to be sure whether the low level of anxiety and apprehensiveness that the approach of winter brings is cause or effect. I do look forward to winter; I love to be lazy, hibernation, cosiness and indoors are pleasing to me, but always there is the uncertainty of what it will bring, how the fabric of the house will stand up to the weather, the hedgeman cometh with his robust power tools and his robust chiding, and there are still jobs to be done which my inward turning tendencies recoil from, will the plans of winter travel and visitors which promise to brighten and enliven the darkest days be brought to nothing by catastrophy? The summer is ended and we are not saved...

But all manner of things shall be well, no doubt, and in spite of this, and although the blogging world is a quieter place generally, I continue to be touched, amused and moved the words and images of my blogging friends. Saddened too, by departures, sad news, melancholy reflections, of course, but always grateful.

So, here are a few yallery-brown things of the season, but no falling leaves.

In fact this looks more like something of high summer, but is still blooming away with freshness and aplomb, a piece of waste land just as one enters Lamballe from our direction, planted entirely with sunflowers and phacelia, agaisnt the gold of the yellowing poplars. Unfortunately they were all turning away from us when we passed.

My sister is always up for Lamballe market. bless her. We browsed all the veggie stalls, scanned the Dutch couple's haberdashery and laughed at the big van full of shockingly expensive, passion-killing flannelette nighties, old-ladies' polyester housecoats and winter undies, as usual. Then we sized up the rotisseries chicken and homed in on my very favourite veg-man from Finistère. I think everything there is grown locally to him, it is always seasonal and sometimes surprising. It's a big stall with just the one man running it, so you select your own and queue to weigh and pay, which keeps it cheap and also means you spot something else while you're waiting to put in the beautifully illustrated brown paper bags.

The only thing I needed was some green chillies, which I didn't really expect him to have but lo, there were a small box of Espelette  types just by the scales, along with some fresh cobnuts:

(The ones with the husks still on are from our purple filbert tree, we share them with the voles, alas no squirrels for a long time. The Brazils are left from who-knows when, the odd chestnut from hereabouts)

I couldn't resist pink Roscoff onions, picked out by rustling through the loose outer husks like a bran tub, at a euro a kilo, which makes the string I got from the sets I grew in the garden absurdly uneconomic, but then there are other, sentimental reasons for growing them. He still had a large number of tomatoes of every size shape and colour, and though I don't really care for yellow tomatoes I had to bring this  elephant-man one back, it was the size of a small pumpkin, and marvellously striped:

These are my butternut crop, a variety called 'Sprinter', specially selected for chillier, shorter seasons, I got seven decent sized ones and a couple of runts. Again I probably saved little by growing them as they are to be found everywhere just now, but there is still satisfaction in having, and sharing, them;

Tom, who isn't over-fond of any kind of yellow squash, says they remind him of the mandrakes in Harry Potter.

And of course, there is knitting, some of it yellow. A very quick knit was these Minion mittens for Princeling's eighth birthday, which I gather went down well,

though I know nothing of Minions and am rubbish at crochet, which was necessary for the eye-goggles.

Taking much longer was this pullover for Tom. He chose the colour, the rest is my fault, I might say, but in fact, once upon a time, he had a gold coloured sweater, in a fine acrylic rib which, despite that unpromising description, we both rather liked. He still has it in fact but it has grown thin and tired and he has grown out of it. I undertook to replace it, and, in a state of hope over experience, I somehow thought (modified) drop shoulders and half-fisherman's rib would be a good idea. Half a year and half a hundredweight later, I was drawing towards the finish line. He slipped the sewn-together body pieces over his head, and I held the sleeves up to check the length. Again, why did I not know? It's not like I haven't been caught out on this before. If you should be interested, and in the position of knitting a drop-shouldered jumper, especially a chunky one, hold your nerve, those sleeves may not look it now but they will be long enough! 

But no, I spent many more hours and quite a bit more wool MAKING THEM LONGER. Aargh. Then when I had carefully sewed it all up, and he tried it on again and, of course, the drop shoulders did what their name indicates they would do, and the ends of the sleeves hung down way below his hands almost to his knees, did I do the sensible thing and unpick the seams, undo the tops of the sleeves and unravel them till they got to the required length? No, I decided, I kid you not, based on the fact I had once fairly successfully cut the bottom off a waistcoat in stocking stitch and picked up the stitches again, to chop off the ends off.

The Sunday before last was then spent in a yellow snowstorm of snipped yarn, obsessively trying to find a way to viably pick up the always unfathomable structure of half-fisherman's rib so as to re-knit the cuffs. The end result was massive, weirdly truncated sleeves, brutally gathered into cuffs like leg-o-muttons, and attempts to disguise this butchery by not-quite-canny enough wielding of the crochet hook.

But did Tom look with horror at the resulting garment? He did not, but has been wearing it proudly much of the time since, despite its not really being cold enough, and I consider myself blessed among women to the final degree of uxoriousness. So we went out into the autumn garden for a photo shoot.

I favoured the background of autumn leaves, but when he wanted to pose in proper knitting pattern style, he was without means of support, and ended up laughing rather a lot and getting puffed out in his big hot sweater:

Then he found a plant tub and regained his dignity and an elegant pose. Roger Moore eat your heart out.

* Still ongoing. We are now tending strongly towards a micro-station even though we won't receive any grant towards it. An old sand bed soak-away, still the only system accepted by the SPANC as being worthy of subsidy, is really too problematical and encumbering, and really very backward.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Eating pancakes and fish in the Waterlands (and a couple more boats)

On our last full day in Amsterdam, we decided to explore some of the watery hinterland behind the city, around the shores of the IJsselmeer, which used to be the Zuiderzee. We didn't know much about this really, though I remember doing a primary school project about the Netherlands and lots of things about dykes and polders and the Zuiderzee and such like; we did not, for instance know whether it was fresh, salt or brackish water. I did know though, that by going to the other side of Amsterdam Central station, there was a ticket office where, for €10 you could obtain a paper copy of this map,

and a ticket which would allow you unlimited access for a day to a network of bus routes which would take you into the Waterlands. (More information here).

They were smart red buses with comfortable seats and good visibility out, and moreover they were clearly functional transport used by locals which is always kind of fun in an inverted-snobbish, I'm-not-your-average-tourist kind of way. I think in fact you could really spend a week or two just pottering about on them and hopping off at the various Waterland towns and villages; the countryside between is, of course, flat and undramatic, but there's the odd windmill, lots of happy looking cows and sheep, and big skies. The outskirts of the villages themselves have a look of unremarkable, pleasant and prosperous suburbs (with an unusual number of watercourses running through them) but many of them have interesting old centres I think.

As we only had a shortish day, and Tom was feeling a bit rough with a cold and cough, we decided to head to Marken, once an island now joined to the mainland by an impressively long causeway.

It's a popular boaty place, with pretty lapboard former fishermen's cottages almost all a uniform dark green, and plenty of bars and ice cream stands and restaurants along the harbour.

We stopped in one of the latter and had lunch, we were quite bold: Tom had 'mustard soup' which was thick and potatoey but also quite strongly mustardy, with a good amount of smoked salmon in it, and I had smoked eel in a sandwich. I'd read about the excellence of smoked eel, that it's the best of all smoked fish, and it really was very good. We came to see a lot of it, there were stalls all over the place, and a dear little smokery selling it further on in Volendam, evidently it's something people like to sample and take back with them while visiting. The proliferation of eels did not help to inform us about the salinity of the water, since we knew eels will swim in both salt and fresh, and probably they're imported from Japan or somewhere for the tourist market anyway. 

This was the view from the window anyway,

and this was the coffee we had afterwards, which I photographed because I love that shade of deep orange-yellow you often find in Dutch coffee cups: 

It's not in fact a very nice colour applied to anything else, except maybe egg yolks, but it's great on coffee cups.

Then we caught the ferry across the water to Volendam. On the way we saw some more lovely boats. The white sailed ones have a kind of hinged bowsprit, and are reminiscent of Thames sailing barges or Norfolk wherries. I very much enjoy spotting connections and similarities between the east of England and the Low Countries, which reinforce what I romantically think of as an atavistic sense of coming home in both places.*

Volendam was very crowded, full of tourists, which we couldn't deny we were too. So I decided the best thing was to give in gracefully and eat some poffertjes from a stand by the harbour. I had to wait for a fresh batch, and enjoyed watching them being made,

It's very hot and they do it very fast. They were delicious too.

So, smoked eel and poffertjes I was able to sample. I had intended to try to eat a raw herring, but the moment never seemed to be right.

Although it was crowded, we were quite easily able to escape the immediate crowds by walking out along the harbour jetty, past the fish smokery, where we saw someone else enjoying the local fish:

I took quite a number of photos of this; I tend to have a compulsion that if I am unusually close to pretty much any wildlife so as to be able to capture it in photos, I must do so. I then got rid of many of them, because they are really rather horrible, though also perhaps, depending on one's personal feeling, somewhat horribly fascinating. It was particularly unsettling for us because earlier in the year we lost a couple of our garden goldfish to the local herons and the two that remain have become fearful and timid to the point of invisibility. Yes I know, they're only fish, and I eat fish. I also eat chicken but that didn't stop me being fond of our hens, and the goldfish seemed to trust us to some extent, in their limited fishy way, and now they don't. Also the mechanism of the heron's beak and the reptilian coldness of its eye are weird, grotesque and disturbing. Don't get me wrong I still admire herons, they are magnificent, prehistoric, marvellous creatures, but I don't believe, because one needs to be accepting and unsentimental about the realities of wildlife and nature, that one should deny, make light of or inure oneself to the terror, horror or general awfulness (awe-fullness) of it either, that's not doing it justice. There are more and closer pictures of this on the web album if you want to see them anyway.

In fact I didn't get the impression the fish was much alive, it wasn't struggling and the heron caught it very close to the water's edge, where I don't think it would have been if it had been OK. Though the bird was clearly not afraid of humans, and though we found it quite scary, it seemed rather unsettled by our presence too, and not quite sure what to do with such a large catch, so we left it to it.

The fish, with its red fins, looked to me to be a freshwater one. The wiki articles I've linked to above confirm that now the IJselmeer is indeed fresh water, though when it was the Zuiderzee it wasn't, being as it was a large shallow bay of the North Sea. It was capped and its name and status changed in 1932, and the rivers that fed it, including the Rhine, gradually changed it from salt to freshwater. Amazing water engineers, the Dutch, for hundreds of years, and the ones we know are all very proud of it. (Also that you have to capitalise both the I and the J at the beginning of the name, since they count as one letter in Dutch, 'a digraph, possibly a ligature').

As with much of the trip, I didn't take that many photos, Tom took more and I may yet pinch some of them. I did just get him to send me this one that he snapped in Volendam, which was one of my favourite images of the trip, and may help to take away the taste of heron-caught fish!


Tom's posted more about our Holland and Belgium trip here, here, here, here and here, with many lovely photos and foody details especially.

* My ancestors on one side did in fact originate from East Anglia and, it is said, before that from the Low Countries (maybe Dutch Jews at one point) but probably so did a lot of people's ; I'm rather sceptical about the current vogue for ancestors. A lot of people have a sense of feeling at home in Amsterdam in particular, mostly because it's such a friendly, civilised, congenial place to be, who wouldn't? 

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Maritime museum, instruments and and art

The museum is divided into three sections, the west, north and east wings leading off from the central courtyard. Once back inside we decided to explore the east wing, which is dedicated to objects. 

I think mostly what I want out of any museum is an aesthetic experience. Learning and reading and lots of words generally don't really grab me much, you can do that at home before or after. Audio-guides we don't bother with, though I'm sure they are often very good, and I prefer the silent company of people plugged into then than the intrusive voices of tour guides. The use of space and light and colour is important, though it doesn't have to be anything fancy; many years ago I was so smitten with the elegant simplicity of the Cycladic art museum in Athens I almost felt I could move in and live there (don't know what it's like now, it looks rather more extensive than I remember it). However, I do like to see objects, preferably close up; often a quaint and cosy small town local history museum can be just as enjoyable, but I've been to some exhibitions which seem to be very set on impressing with lots interactive hi-tech stuff - holographic figures talking to you, projected spatial stuff, lots of touch screens etc - yet I've found myself disappointed and thinking fine, but where's the stuff?

But this section at least of the Maritime museum (we didn't bother with the more pedagogic, interactive, 'explore-and-experience-the-life-of' bits) was brilliant, with creative use of space and light and sound and electronics, but with real solid stuff a-plenty too. We went first to the navigational instruments galleries. The room was darkened midnight blue, with illuminated star maps moving over the ceiling and a low, hypnotic background sound, suggestive of waves and bells and distant voices. An open book with empty pages greeted you in a pool of light as you entered, and this is what happened when you touched it and turn the pages:

(yes, I know he's turning them backwards, I don't think it made much difference)

Then there were the transparent cases of with the instruments, from late mediaeval astrolabes to modern equipment,

most of which I just enjoyed gazing at as objects of mystery and beauty, without taking much trouble to identify their names and purposes. The things below, however, were lead weights, for taking soundings, (and swinging when one was shirking, I suppose. Better look that one up):

while these are clearly compasses:

Then there were the decorations, not only figureheads, but stern and mast decorations, tiller heads and all manner of wild, graceful, fierce, funny and sometimes downright saucy creatures and characters, enough to people a sea-going saga on their own:

(a touch of mise-en-abyme there, a ship within a ship...)

Again the sound and light murmured and shifted and changed around and on the objects.

And after that there were the paintings, dating from the early 17th century, when there were still sea monsters,

with examples in the genre of pen-paintings, which I didn't know about, executed with eye-watering detail and precision with pen and india ink on an oil paint ground,

and moments of high and luminous drama,


We only really saw a small part of the whole collection, and this is only a small part of what we saw. It really is a splendid museum.